Thanks for your article on nobody being right in this [NBA labor] dispute. You were right on. It made me feel right but depressed at the same time. What's left to believe in anymore?
I can't speak for everyone. But for me...I believe in the Portland Trail Blazers. Be careful, though. Don't put an "inc." or a "tm" at the end of that name. I'm not talking about a corporation or an NBA entity. I'm talking about my Portland Trail Blazers. I'm talking about the championship heroics that united a city and inspired a generation of children into lifelong delirium. I'm talking about thousands of people chanting as one as Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter rocked the Coliseum, thousands more welcoming them at the Hillsboro Airport, tens of thousands spontaneously honking horns in the streets after a playoff victory. I'm talking shivers running through backbones as Steve Smith and Scottie Pippen put on the uniform, oohs and aahs for an aged, non-mobile Arvydas Sabonis, a town ready to embrace and redeem native son Damon Stoudamire even after plentiful mistakes. I'm talking about folks beaten down unimaginably by years of watching uncaring, unlikable players who rebounded in less than a season when Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge said hello. I'm talking about a group that went crazy upon hearing Greg Oden's name, rushed to Pioneer Square to welcome him, and roots for him to this day even though his impact has barely registered. I'm talking about people who love the guys in red and black as if they were family, who cheer at the slightest provocation, who come together still to dream and debate and wonder. I'm talking about the readers who come here every day to discuss a passion that won't let go of them no matter what. THAT'S what the Portland Trail Blazers mean.
Both players and owners have an understandably limited view. Owners consider the team theirs because they write the paychecks and manage it day-to-day. Players think they are the Portland Trail Blazers because they take the court in the team's colors. Both of those assertions are true as far as they go. But both of those positions are temporary. Players come and go because of trade or age. They impact the moment from the floor but their only lasting legacy resides with those who view them and remember. So, too, with owners. Many Blazer fans were here before Paul Allen took over this team. Most will be here when he's gone. What inspires him to own and operate the team--what will inspire a new owner to take his place--if not the legion of supporters lining up to cheer, pay for tickets and jerseys, and bank the proceedings in a cultural memory that lasts far beyond any season's final horn?
Without Blazermaniacs lining the streets for Walton's victory parade, without throats shouting along to Gary Glitter during Drexler-era timeouts, without hearts leaping earnestly to embrace Roy and Aldridge and Oden these are just a bunch of guys bouncing an orange ball and another in a suit losing his shirt for lack of interest. The lasting version of the Portland Trail Blazers can't be found in an office or on the hardwood. The most enduring--in some ways the only meaningful--version resides in nursing homes where folks still gather to watch every game, in classrooms where true believers still claim Roy is better than Durant, on sites like this one where we gather as a community under the team's name. Those Portland Trail Blazers are worth believing in no matter how the temporary incarnation of the team is faring at the moment. Those Portland Trail Blazers can't be taken away from us. You can take a season. You can even take the team away, I suppose. But you can't take my childhood memories, that feeling of dreams occasionally (and gloriously) coming true, and the perpetual hope that's mandated when you follow this path. These thing are so far beyond BRI or anything a union, an ex-union, a group of owners, or David Stern himself can do that they're nigh untouchable. All the power, money, and legal arguments in the world can't change that.
Cynics will say that I'm a sucker for believing. They'll say that both owners and players depend on just such belief in order to line their pockets, in order to excuse their current behavior and disregard for the fan base. Like the players' and owners' views this statement is true as far as it goes. But you know what? They can have the money. It's not like I'm going broke over this anyway. I've got the aspirations, the memories, and the community bond. Money can't buy any of those things. To those locked inside it the temporary view seems stronger. In reality it's a prison keeping them from seeing a truth they'll never understand: I've got the better end of the deal. They're getting money. I get so much more. We get so much more. If the people involved in this labor dispute glimpsed even a bit of the significance of that "more" they wouldn't be having the argument in the first place. The fact that it's gone on so long and become so acrimonious shows that they can't. That's sad. But they're battling over power and position that ultimately don't matter when compared to the power and position I have. If the whole league crumbled they'd have nothing. I get to keep everything I've gained for the rest of my life. I get to tell my kids and grandkids about it and help them find the analogous experience in their own lives. I get to hold onto the real Portland Trail Blazers, all of the smiles and tears and hopes and dreams they've engendered.
I don't need to fight the players and owners on their own terms. I've already won. This victory came through a process in which these two groups played an intrinsic part but in the end it isn't dependent on any of them or their silly little arguments. Let them fight. Let them lose. Let them tear apart each other and the league as they do so. If they can't get any vision bigger than that they're going to end up with a Pyrrhic victory, isolated rulers of a broken kingdom. Meanwhile we'll still have the real Portland Trail Blazers [or insert your own team's name here]. We'll still have that common experience, those shared smiles when someone says "Bill Walton" or "Clyde Drexler" even if we have nothing else to bring us together. This was never about those particular players or a particular owner to begin with. It's about the capacity of human beings to inspire each other to be more than they would have been alone...a two-way street, a marvelous chemistry between players and organizations and their fans that feeds the soul of a city and more. Even if this group of particular owners and players screw it up beyond all recognition that won't die. We'll outlast them and find it again.
Yeah...I believe that. The only question is whether the guys in charge will remember the vision that inspired them in the first place, making the wait short, or whether they'll continue on this course making it long. Players might be able to forfeit a season. Owners might be willing to skip two. None of them can last forever, not and still be who they are. Me? I can. And that means the victory is ultimately mine...and yours.